safe is risky

Organizations can spot the risks of a new idea a mile away. But there’s a curious blind spot when it comes to the risks of not taking those risks. The path of least resistance is to play it safe and keep the idea as close to the tried-and-true as possible. We just need to ask Polaroid how that strategy works in the long run.

I stumbled across an interesting HBR article from Bill Taylor called “Playing It Safe Is Riskier Than You Think”. In it, he writes about an analogy of risk first framed by two business professors 25 years ago.

“Executives and entrepreneurs face two very different sorts of risks. One is that their organization will make a bold move that failed — a risk they call ‘sinking the ship.’ The other is that their organization will fail to make a bold move that would have succeeded — a risk they call ‘missing the boat.’

“Naturally, most executives worry more about sinking the boat than missing the boat, which is why so many organizations, even in flush times, are so cautious and conservative. To me, though, the opportunity for executives and entrepreneurs is to recognize the power of rocking the boat — searching for big ideas and small wrinkles, inside and outside the organization, that help you make waves and change course.”

When we’re leading a project, particularly at a large company, I think that’s a big part of our job — to continually find ways to rock the boat. The most remarkable ideas go against the flow. But we don’t want to sacrifice the remarkable parts of the idea for the comfort of a smoother ride.

It’s easier than ever to prototype just about every aspect of our ideas to make them come to life. But in most stage gate meetings I’ve attended, where ideas are presented for approval, every idea is shoehorned into the exact same boring PowerPoint template. In that environment, the “safest” idea will win, not the most remarkable.

A few years ago, I heard Doug Hall lead an innovation workshop, and his session on managing risks really struck a chord with me. He said that “meaningfully unique ideas spark fear. Fear causes shut down. The secret to reducing fear is to make the unknown known. We need to turn killer issues into manageable threats”. I think we rock the boat by continually prototyping the unknowns of our ideas so that they become known.

We can’t change the inherent risk aversion of an organization. But we can rock the boat.

(Marketoonist Monday: I’m giving away a signed print of this week’s cartoon. Just share an insightful comment to this week’s post by 5:00 PST on Monday. Thanks!)

  1. Jean Storlie says


    I agree with your insights. And can think of a few poignant examples from my work at General Mills.

    I’ve been delving into storytelling as a tool for innovation and see an opportunity where stories can help reduce fear by making the unknown known. I teach innovation teams to package their ideas in a story framework, winch helps the organization decision makers imagine the power and potential of the new idea, making it feel more feasible.

    Thanks for creating another insightful cartoon.


  2. Bill Carlson says

    An organization needs to establish, cultivate and provide positive reinforcement for a culture that seeks out and supports trying new ideas. Some mistakes will be made but there’s no reason for any “cutting edge” efforts to ever really risk the entire company or brand — and without these attempts, where does growth come from?

    One of my roles was for a company which specifically said in the interview process that they welcome (expect!) decision-making and were prepared to accept failures along the way without major drama — of course, presuming the decision was thought through and wins outnumbered losses.

    A company in motion can be redirected but a company standing still is going nowhere — can’t be a much simpler lesson there, eh?

  3. Jennifer Salkeld Nelson says

    Best. Toon + Post. Ever.

    I only wish I had some brilliant insightful comment because this would get double matting in a frame to proudly spotlight it on my office wall of Tom Fishburne signed prints.

    In addition to a fabulous M-toon, you have artfully described exactly what I consider my job — and my passion. Whether from my posts inside big companies or outside as a consultant, I use facts, analytics, knowledge and insights to get to my REAL goal of first putting a spotlight on needs, opportunities and solutions (especially ones that terrify!) and second, helping to push to execution by breaking it down into manageable risk bites, propelled by a vision of sales potential.

  4. @euonymous says

    OMG. This is painful.

    Having spent my early working years in the computer industry, I was impressed that Dr. An Wang was able to turn his company from a calculator company (mind you, a calculator the size of a desktop pc) eventually into a word processor company. (At the time it was a big deal!) The story of Wang Labs is a Chinese tragedy of the loyal and appropriate successor (round eyes John Cunningham) being cast aside in favor of the eldest son (Freddie Wang) who had no interest or skills to run the company.

    While I was at DEC, and then watching the demise of DEC afterwards, I saw a similar story. Ken Olsen was every bit as innovative as An Wang. He listened to his employees even when he didn’t agree with them. After Ken was kicked out by the board, the company rested on what it thought were its laurels and was eventually acquired by Compaq (incredible!) and then by HP. Very sad.

    Your cartoon could be used to illustrate Peter Drucker’s comment that the natural lifespan of a corporation is 25 years, after which the founder’s vision and drive are lost. It would be funny if that sad story hadn’t been repeated so many times.

  5. Michael Brooks says

    Several years ago I worked for a company that was a true pioneer in the specialty print business. When ownership was focused on breaking the rules and adding to their patent portfolio they made money. When they acquired investment money and brought in CEO dedicated to keeping the money the commission structure changed, innovation was focused on “sure bets” and there was a lot more reporting. The better sales people left, opportunities we had to leverage our technology could not get funded and eventually the competition caught us and now the once pioneer in an area of printing they controlled are coming back from bankruptcy. Suffice to say your post today has brought back some memories.

  6. Richard Czerniawski says

    Listen to anyone that knows anything about marketing, or business for that matter, and s/he will tell you about the importance of taking risks. Go to a financial planner and s/he will show you higher returns for, well, a higher risk portfolio. Yet despite what we know about the importance of taking risks those of us from blue chip companies and/or with blue chip educations, abhor it in practice. We’ve been trained to avoid risk. But being predictable in marketing carries its own risk. It’s the risk of being like everyone else. In an “age of sameness”, where products and services are virtually identical, this risk is magnified. It’s the risk of being homogeneous. It’s the risk of not breaking out of the cluttered pack to capture the attention and interest of the customer. It’s the risk of not catering to the needs and desires of potential custmers but, instead, delivering the conventional wisdom of the organization, or category. It’s the risk of lost opportunities – loyal relationships with customers that generate profitable sales growth. The real risk we face is going forward with something that has not worked (merely because it is what we, or the category, always does) or we do not know what response it will generate from customers. The former is stupidity and the later is gambling.

  7. Stephanie Moritz says

    Avid reader, but first time writer. This specific cartoon jumped off the page and spoke to me in a way no other has. I work for a large company and countless cartoons have been spot on, but this specific one is personal and speaks not only to what I believe personally, but what is also our biggest obstacle. This has been my crusade here and I would be honored (and absolutely thrilled beyond words) to win a signed copy and use it to push the crusade to take risks, versus face the risk of not taking risks. I love what you do and it is sincerely inspiring. Thank you for infusing serious issues into humorous situations that can help us to advance the conversations internally to ultimately take action.

  8. Judy Bernstein says

    Can you give an example of ‘prototyping the unknowns of our ideas so that they become known’?

    Jean Storlie — my fellow comment leaver, esteemed friend and fellow conference enthusiast — you mentioned having several examples, any you can share?

    Awesome Marketoon, as always!

  9. Drew Hawkins says

    The agency I work for is focused primarily on nonprofit and cause-based clients. This is even dangerous in a nonprofit world. Many nonprofit people believe that they can’t afford to take risks since budgets are already strapped tightly. Often times, they can’t afford NOT to take risks and stand out among other like-minded organizations fighting for resources.

  10. George Julian @JusticeforLB says

    The timing of this week’s cartoon is uncanny, last Friday (4 July) marked the first anniversary of Connor Sparrowhawk’s death, and the end of our #107days campaign to bring #JusticeforLB.

    While trying to improve awareness and conditions for people with learning disabilities, we continually experience the attitude depicted. People know the system has to change, the Minister responsible is wringing his hands, but still little progress.

    Our campaign brought people together for collective action, to build hope and to dispel fear, because we can’t accept the status quo any longer. Your cartoon depicts the continued challenge as we start a new phase of our campaign. Thank you.

  11. Lisa Snyder says

    While the article focuses on large corporations, this scenario happens in the small business universe. It might even be more dangerous since a small business owner might be more insulated from other opinions and not recognize that s/he is “missing the boat”. Additionally, the risks to a small business can be more intertwined with family issues and seem more magnified.

    I emphasize to my clients to make small changes over time to be sure their WordPress website is addressing their customer’s changing needs – i.e. rocking the boat. My focus with my clients is to educate them about how to make the changes to their website content areas and reduce their risk of an important marketing tool getting stale.

  12. Tessa Stuart says

    This made me smile wrily in recognition, as I toil in the midst of a long marketing project between a client and a branding agency trying to persuade them to do something different in the cliche-ridden “this handsome Georgian-style compact townhouse with integral garage, coffee maker, and home cinema, boasting three bedrooms and a Juliette balcony, set in verdant woodland” world of property marketing.

    We are working on what is called a “place-making campaign”. No idea what that is? No, I didn’t know either. It is when you take an area previously overlooked by buyers as too remote/unfashionable/noisy and “put it on the map”. This has made us REALLY stretch our brains to identify what we can genuinely say is special and different about the location. We are fighting like crazy to prevent it from being watered down in marketing speak, and rendered dull and unremarkable by cliche. An ongoing battle which ain’t over yet….

    So I extend my sympathies to others doing the same and exhort you to Banish The Dull and Strip Out The Cliche in those committee meetings. Don’t give in!

  13. Vickie Echols says

    This cartoon caught my eye and your message resonates with me because I am an educator working with school leaders to embrace innovation, such as digital and mobile learning.

    You are targeting business executives as the audience, but I think this speaks to many leaders in our schools.

    The irony of our position in education is that our clients – the students – are much faster than many who are serving in the role of teacher or school administrator to understand the value of innovation, particularly digital and mobile learning.

    Technology innovations – digital learning in particular – is “rocking our boat” and although it is a fun ride for some of us, many see these changes as threats which will sink the boat. One thing for certain, educators of today’s students will miss the boat if they don’t embrace the changing world of communication and learning with digital, mobile tools.

  14. Ian Hough says

    Lovely cartoon, thanks. It applies very directly to the position I’m in, as we mostly market to the c-suite in a very conservative industry. In terms of rocking the boat, the c-suite can be thought of as travelling luxury class, so have remained oblivious to much of the digital rough seas of the past 15+ years. They were older then so are older now, but we can’t sit around just waiting for them to die off so we can market to their sons.

    We have to bring them out to the deck, to make them peer into the green Holocene mist where polar bears cling to diminishing ice floes and explain that, without our help they, too, will be clinging.

    The difference between the marketing of technology and marketing other things is that technology is definitely taking over any and all previous processes that it is possible to take over. You cannot embellish or exaggerate enough about how the Internet, smart phones, mobile and cloud computing have and will continue to transform everything about how we live.

    We must find ways to demonstrate that this new technology is the holistic lifestyle equivalent of stair-lifts and electric wheelchairs.

    Plus, the air out here is SO bracing…

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